Numerous news articles have appeared in the past few weeks about the mysterious illness cropping up all over the country that experts have linked to vaping.  Currently, the CDC is reporting 380 confirmed or probable cases and 7 deaths attributed to the vaping illness.  Cases have been identified in over 34 states.  When I began writing this article last week, 33 states had reported cases of the illness to the CDC, and 5 people had died. As of last week, Arizona had no reported cases; now, Arizona health officials have reported three people with the vaping disease.  The death toll has risen from 5 to 7 since I began working on the article.  By the time you read this, there will undoubtedly be more cases and more deaths. 

The situation is serious enough that the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has taken control of the investigation and is coordinating with state health agencies and the FDA (Federal Food and Drug Administration) to find the cause and eradicate the illness.  Thus far, no cases have been reported in Europe.  That may be because Great Britain and other European countries keep tight control over the contents of vaping products.  That same control has not been exerted in this country where questionable products are sold on the street.

E-cigarettes have been sold in the United States for about a decade, but health experts became concerned last year when surveys showed teenagers and young adults were using E-cigarettes and other vaping products in record numbers.  Vaping is the current “in” thing.  Vaping is “hip,” “cool,” or whatever the current terminology is.  Teens believe it is safer than smoking despite the nicotine content of E-cigarettes.  Vaping devices use an oil to create an aerosol that users inhale into their lungs.  The aerosol may contain nicotine products or THC oils (a product derived from the marijuana plant). 

Health experts consider vaping a gateway to smoking, a new method of getting young people addicted to nicotine.  Vaping products have been designed with teenagers and young adults in mind.  Many are flavored with sweet tasting fruit or candy flavors.  Of course, that makes them attractive to young people.  Vaping THC oils is now the preferred method among young people for using marijuana.  Of the 53 cases of vaping illness studied in Illinois and Wisconsin, the median age of the patient was 19.  This illness is hitting young people with no prior history of lung disease or asthma.

What We Know So Far About the Illness.

No one knows exactly what chemical in vaping products causes the disease, but researchers are working frantically to narrow it down.  The Food and Drug Administration has detected vitamin E acetate in many of the samples it analyzed.  Vitamin E oil may be one of the oils used in illicit vaping products that can be purchased cheaply on the street.  It is also possible that some commercial manufacturers are using one of the many varieties of the chemical in their products.  Some affected patients reporting vaping THC oils, while others avow they only vaped nicotine based products.  Vaping THC oils has become a popular method for consuming marijuana, including medical marijuana.  Dr. David Christiani, of the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine last month saying that while it was not clear exactly what chemicals were causing the illness, E-cigarette fluids contain “at least six groups of potentially toxic compounds.”

Symptoms may begin gradually and worsen over several weeks, or the disease may progress more rapidly with symptoms requiring hospitalization within a few days of onset.  The CDC reports the following symptoms reported by patients:

  • Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Fatigue, fever, or weight loss.

Hospitalized patients have shown elevated heart rates and an elevated white blood count.  Elevated white blood counts normally are indicators of infectious disease, but no evidence of infection has been found in any of these cases.  Some cases progress to pneumonia, acute respiratory failure, and sometimes death.

The pulmonary effects of this illness can be so profound that victims are left with chronic lung disease.  The Washington Post described the experience of one young man.  Alexander Mitchell was a healthy 20-year old man who loved hiking and being outdoors. Like many people his age, Mitchell vaped every day. He reported that he had just purchased a new vial of vaping oil.  The next day, he began feeling unwell.  Within two days, he was hospitalized with a ventilator forcing oxygen into his lungs.  Mitchell had developed lipid pneumonia, a condition caused by vaping oils coating the lining of his lungs.  He was unable to breathe and exchange oxygen without artificial support.  His parents feared he would die.  Eventually, he recovered and was allowed to go home.  However, Mitchell’s lung capacity is now diminished by 25%.  For the rest of his life, he will be at risk for respiratory disease.

Alexander Mitchell is not alone.  Many survivors suffered respiratory failure and were left with permanent lung damage.  This disease is serious.  Everyone needs to know the risks of vaping.

What Actions Health Officials are Taking to Combat the Illness.

The CDC and state health departments are carefully tracking cases of the illness.  The FDA is collecting samples of vaping fluids from all over the country and testing them.  They are working feverishly to narrow down the field of possible causative agents and identify the source of the illness.  Health officials are urging the public to stop vaping until the cause of the illness is identified.  They are urging people with medical marijuana cards to use other delivery methods like marijuana edibles to consume the drug. 

As you would expect, stopping teenagers and young adults from vaping is a difficult task.  Teens tend to go on their merry way believing “It can’t happen to me.”  Many of these young people are already addicted to nicotine.  We don’t want them to substitute smoking for vaping, so what is the answer?  All we can do is hope to make them understand the dangers and stop vaping, at least until the problem is solved.